A Day in the Life of a Chef

~ By RICHARD FOSS ~

If you ask most people what a chef does, they tend to look at you quizzically. After a moment they answer you as though speaking to a small child, “Why, that’s obvious, they cook.” That answer is indeed obvious, and it is mostly wrong. There are cooks who do nothing more than cook, putting in full days in coffee shops and chain restaurants everywhere. Chefs are different - they have the joy of creation as well as the responsibility of pleasing the fickle public with their efforts.

Though chefs do generally get into the business because they are artists at cooking, if cooking is all that they do they won’t be doing it for long. A chef, especially a chef who has an ownership stake in the restaurant, must be a businessman, politician, personnel manager, and much more. Let’s look at a typical day for a chef at a medium size restaurant:

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9:30 AM - arrive at the restaurant and check to see that the produce delivery has come in. Run an inventory on everything and check for freshness and quality of the fruit, vegetables, and seafood while you’re at it. If something isn’t there - or isn’t good enough - call the produce company manager and threaten, wheedle, whine, or beg depending on the number of alternative suppliers you have for the missing items. After all, you could go pick up those items from the central market yourself... but you’d have to be there and shopping at 6 AM. Some chefs do, but at the moment, at least, you’re not one of them.

10:15 AM - Start making desserts and any soups or sauces which require long cooking times. If you have a smoker you need to light the fires and then lower air intake so you get the cool, smoky fire that will give the perfect taste to that salmon. Other members of the staff should be showing up by now. If somebody doesn’t, get on the phone and find out why - if they won’t be there, call someone who had the day off and humbly request that they come fill in. If you’re a chef-owner, you might want to take a glance at the front of the house and make sure the tables are set, if you can get time away from signing invoices to acknowledge deliveries of fresh napkins and tablecloth from the linen service and checking to see if the bread delivery has come in right this time.

10:30 AM - Sous-chefs arrive. You brief them on the specials of the day and start them making sauces, mixing seasonings, and chopping garnish and vegetables.

11:30 AM - The restaurant opens for lunch, a meal most people want to eat in a hurry. You have selected most of the lunch entrees for speed of preparation, but you watch the rhythm of the kitchen with a critical eye. You are trying out a special which will be featured at dinner, and you watch to see if any orders are coming back only partly eaten. You check with the serving staff, watch to see that clean dishes are coming out of the dishwasher fast enough that there is no shortage out front, and instruct that new sous-chef who doesn’t really know the menu yet.

2:00 PM - The lunch rush is over, and you and the staff can dine. You prepare a few items you have been thinking of adding to the menu and serve them to the staff along with some of new wines which you are considering ordering for the restaurant. This is your favorite moment of the day, a chance to relax with colleagues, discuss recipes and wines, and rest a while after lunch.

3:00 PM - Sous-chefs leave for a break. If lunch was unusually large, check produce stocks and order more of anything which seems to be running low. Review any banquet or catering orders and verify that you’ll have enough staff for any big parties.

3:30 PM - Your beverage distributor drops in with a scheduled delivery and several beers you have never heard of, but which he swears everyone will be demanding as soon as a new TV ad hits. You have heard this one before, but take a bottle or two for tasting and do some price comparisons before finalizing your new order. As he leaves your mail comes in, with invoices, advertisements, and several pages of new and arcane government regulations you are expected to follow. You swear you’ll read those real soon, and turn to doing something you enjoy more: writing up the daily specials menu and putting drawings of each with preparation notes next to the sous-chefs stations in the kitchen.

4:30 PM - The sous-chefs are back, and they check your notes on specials to make sure they understand them. They then start the afternoon round of making sauces, chopping vegetables and garnishes, and starting any roasts which need several hours of slow cooking. You watch, deal with paperwork, and check the reservation book to try and figure out what tonight’s rush is going to be like.

6:00 PM - The dinner rush is on, and it will be for at least four hours. You manage the chaos of a kitchen running full speed as best you can. The rhythm of the kitchen is like the heartbeat of a living organism to you, and you can feel any irregularity before you can actually pinpoint its source. Inspect dishes as they leave the kitchen to make sure the portions are correct and the items well arranged, look at the same dishes as they come back to see if everyone is leaving the Swiss chard or cauliflower at the side. Watch for bottlenecks in the operation - is that new special you came up with so labor-intensive that the kitchen slows to a crawl every time someone orders it? That’s dinner-party cooking, not restaurant cooking, and it will have to come off the menu. Taste, watch, help, commend, and command, like an orchestra conductor in a chef’s toque.

10:00 PM - The rush dies down, coffee is being served in the dining room, and the sous-chefs are cleaning their knives and putting away non-perishable items for tomorrow. You, on the other hand, are reviewing the menu for the next day, revising it depending on what is selling, calling in a revised produce order to match tomorrow’s specials. In any free time you go out to the dining room to get a little interaction with your customers.

10:45 PM - Another fourteen hour day has gone by. A vacuum is running in the dining room, the busboy is mopping the kitchen floor, and you have a last glass of wine and consider the gleaming surfaces and shining tools of your trade in a kitchen which is now silent and still. It is time for home and a little peace and quiet before bed and the whole routine starting again...